Like so many of his poems, ‘Her Initials’ by Thomas Hardy dives headfirst into an incredibly intimate experience with grief and depression. One that revolves around such a seemingly mundane and overlooked detail — which only makes the poem all the more devastating for the reader.
At its core, it is a poem about reckoning with the ways in which profound loss can appear to nullify the positive effects of such emotion. Especially when stumbling upon a reminder of happier times as the speaker of the poem appears to.
Her Initials Thomas HardyUpon a poet’s page I wroteOf old two letters of her name;Part seemed she of the effulgent thoughtWhence that high singer’s rapture came.—When now I turn the leaf the sameImmortal light illumes the lay,But from the letters of her nameThe radiance has waned away!
Explore Her Initials
The speaker of ‘Her Initials’ begins the poem by offering up a memory. This recollection “of old” centers on a piece of paper upon which they once wrote the letters of their beloved’s name. It’s also implied that it was inscribed as part of a poem. The speaker reflects on this long past moment and how their lover once felt so vividly present in their “effulgent thought.”
In the second stanza, it is revealed that this is no longer the case. Shifting to the present, the speaker appears to be looking at the self-same page referenced in the first stanza. Yet although the same light of day shines upon it as it did all those years ago, it doesn’t inspire the same sensation. The “letters of her name” no longer give the speaker the comforting “radiance” of her presence.
Structure and Form
‘Her Initials’ is structured into two quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ‘ABAB’. The poem’s meter varies from line to line but most closely resembles iambic tetrameter, while the first line offers an example of a spondaic foot: “poet’s page.”
‘Her Initials’ contains but it is not limited to the following literary devices:
- Auditory Imagery: “Whence that high singer’s rapture came” (4).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: “—When now I turn the leaf the same” (5).
- Visual Imagery: “Upon a poet’s page I wrote / … two letters of her name” (1-2); “Immortal light illumes the lay” (6); “The radiance has waned away!” (8).
- Metaphor: “Part seemed she of the effulgent thought” (3).
- Symbolism: “letters of her name” (2, 7); “effulgent thought” (2); “Immortal light” (6); “radiance” (8).
Upon a poet’s page I wrote
Of old two letters of her name;
Part seemed she of the effulgent thought
Whence that high singer’s rapture came.
In the first stanza of ‘Her Initials’ the speaker discovers an old piece of paper – a “poet’s page” (1) – that bears a grouping of letters personally significant to them. These are described as being the “letters of her name” (2). Although the identity of this woman is not explicitly revealed in the poem, it’s clear that they were deeply loved (and now sorely missed) by the speaker.
The next two lines return to the moment these initials were first inscribed onto the page. Hardy’s diction here reflects the speaker’s passionate thoughts for their lover – which makes sense given they’d just composed a poem in their honor. She is described as being a part of their “effulgent thought” (3), using light to symbolize her luminous effect on the speaker.
—When now I turn the leaf the same
Immortal light illumes the lay,
But from the letters of her name
The radiance has waned away!
Stanza two of ‘Her Initials’ pulls the speaker out of their memory to ruminate on the present. Looking at the same “leaf” (5), or page, they realize that something has changed. Hardy brings up this motif of light again when the speaker confesses that although the same “immortal light illumes” (6) the letters, they just don’t spark the same reaction.
Though that isn’t to say that the speaker loves this woman any less. The “immortal light” mentioned could be read as a symbol of their undying devotion, while what’s “waned away” (8) is the intensity with which that feeling once gripped the speaker.
Hardy is ambiguous about the nature of the speaker’s relationship with the woman in the present. Yet, it seems safe to assume they are sundered in some way, be it through heartbreak or death. When they were together just the thought of their beloved could inspire radiant emotion. Now, all he has are the bittersweet and diminished luster of past memories.
The poem’s theme is that any kind of separation from a loved one can dull and nullify one’s memories of them.
Hardy didn’t have the best relationship with his first wife, and the two were often described as being estranged from one another. But when she died in 1912, the loss deeply affected him. He spent the rest of his life writing poems like this one in an attempt to assuage his grief.
Hardy’s speaker mentions light throughout the poem, and the imagery is closely tied with memories of their beloved. It’s used as both a symbol of their presence in the speaker’s life and also of their love.
Here are some more poems by Thomas Hardy that you might enjoy:
- ‘Beeny Cliff’ – this poem takes a hard look at grief’s ability to the very way we experience or perceive a once fond location.
- ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ – this is a deeply sad poem about a mother and daughter struggling after the latter’s unintended pregnacy and abandonment by their lover.
- ‘He Never Expected Much’ – this poem conveys life’s often unfair and chaotic nature.